Cooking up Clues

By Rob O'Connor '95
Managing Editor

Somewhere between CSI and Celebrity Chef, there's Chris Harrison '95. As chief illicit laboratory chemist at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, he is the Emeril Lagasse of illicit substances.

Harrison joined the state crime lab as a forensic chemist after completing the coursework for a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1997.

At that time, Arkansas was the number one state per capita in the manufacturing of methamphetamine. Harrison was on call at least two weeks a month, collecting samples, aiding in interrogations, and — calling on his experience as a former photo editor for The Profile — taking crime scene photos.

"We were gone all the time," said Harrison, who estimates he's worked more than 700 crime scene investigations during his career.

"It's really fun to respond to crime scenes to help officers," he said, describing how his job resembles the image that people may see on crime television shows. "That part is exactly what we do, but we're state employees, not law enforcement. We drive unmarked trucks with equipment, not SWAT-style Hummers, and we don't carry a weapon, because we're not sworn law enforcement officers. So it's a little different, but there's still a lot of adrenaline."

At crime scenes, Harrison discovered that suspects feel a curious kinship with him.

"Clandestine cooks identify with us because they're chemists as well," he said.

Harrison cut his teeth on crime scene investigations before the advent of digital photography and Google maps, which help law enforcement officials locate illicit labs. Technology has made it easier to assist investigators, and Harrison routinely takes calls after hours from officers asking him to evaluate photos.

He enjoys finding unknown processes that require him to research what suspects are up to.

"Those are really fun moments," said Harrison, recalling a particularly complex scene that had federal and local law enforcement agents puzzled. Within a day of testing and retesting in the lab, he cracked the case. "No one knew anything about it, so that was really fulfilling. Eureka moments make it exciting."

While Arkansas has long been on the cutting edge of cooking methamphetamine, until recently, no one was cooking pseudo ephedrine clandestinely.

Harrison told federal Drug Enforcement Agency agents that they would find it in Arkansas. About two years ago, his prediction came true. To be sure, Harrison called on his Hendrix mentor and chemistry professor Dr. Tom Goodwin, who helped him reproduce the process.

"After two hours in the lab at Hendrix, we figured it out," he said.

Replicating illicit processes is essential to supporting law enforcement efforts, as Harrison follows many cases from the crime scene to the courtroom.

"Every time we testify we have to be able to reproduce it. We have to cook meth," he said. "We can't testify about something we can't do."

Harrison has given more than 60 testimonies and enjoys the opportunity to explain chemical processes in a courtroom.

"I love it, it's my second favorite part of the job," he said. "You get challenged about everything you know and how you communicate it to someone who doesn't know much about chemistry."

His first foray into public speaking was a presentation of his senior chemistry research.

"That presentation was one of the best experiences I had at Hendrix," he said, also citing the positive impact of persuasive and public speaking courses he took as an undergraduate. He also took an acting class and acted in a production of All My Sons.

"It made a difference in explaining how a reaction mechanism works," he said. "If you can't speak, you're not going to be a good forensic chemist."

Alongside his lab work, Harrison advocates the role of chemistry in crime scene investigation as an expert faculty member at the University of Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, which offers four-year degrees as well as technical job training for law enforcement personnel. He offers five different classes about 10 times a year to students in the narcotic officers' certification program.

"We talk about pharmacology and anything drug-related, as well as crime scene and photo evidence collection as it relates to narcotics," he said. "It's awesome."

He also speaks frequently to college students through the state, including American Chemical Society members at Hendrix.

"It's a small portion of what I do, but I do it as often as I can," he said. "All of that is because of my first presentation experience at Hendrix."

A North Little Rock native, Harrison first set foot on campus as a student at Arkansas Governor's School, where he met several future Hendrix classmates.

"I was sold after Governor's School," he said. "It was Hendrix all the way."

Originally a biology major, Harrison didn't even take chemistry his freshman year. After meeting Dr. Warfield Teague in General Chemistry, he switched to chemistry but insists his early emphasis on biology has helped him in his current role.

"I took at least one biology class each term, so I had 20-plus biology hours, which has helped out a lot here," he said. "I can talk DNA and the serology side ... and it's made me a more well-rounded chemist and a more well-rounded forensic analyst."

In Dr. Teague's advanced inorganic chemistry course, Harrison enjoyed "micro-scaling" and recreating experiments from science journals, something that has also served him well at the crime lab.

"That's how meth lab chemistry works," he said. "Every day we work a case, we're doing an experiment. Every case is tied to proving or disproving something. If the outcome doesn't come out the way you think it will, then you have to rethink it and do some other test."

Harrison enjoys the intersection of chemistry and crime scene investigation.

"I like the fact that we do ultimately serve law enforcement and the community," he said. "The crime lab is an important part of law enforcement and vital to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse. It also serves as a good check and balance to the legal system. The crime lab is not interested in innocence or guilt, only the facts of a crime, however that may influence the outcome."

"I plan on being here for the rest of my career," he said. "This agency has treated me well. We're like a family."

Harrison and his wife Jan Green Harrison '97 live in North Little Rock with their two daughters.